Tagsauvert study, circumcision, clinical trials, condoms, ethics, foreskin, hiv prevention, journalism, mail & guardian, microbicide gels, news media, orange farm, sensationalist
More on the foreskin furore
29 July 2011
An article appearing in the Mail & Guardian makes sensationalist and incorrect comments around a study of circumcision and HIV prevention.
The writer takes issue with various trials which aimed to test the efficacy of male circumcision as a method of HIV prevention.
The criticism that the writer levels at one study in particular illustrates the ignorance often displayed in regard to clinical trials.
In the past anti-HIV microbicide trials have been lambasted by journalists who had not taken the time to understand the principles (ethical or otherwise) behind clinical trials.
This writer cites critics of the Orange Farm “Auvert” study, who cried foul over results that supported the theory that circumcision is an effective method of HIV prevention.
The piece accuses the researchers of not warning the uncircumcised men who were being compared to the circumcised men in the study to wear condoms. In other words the opinion piece puts the results down to the (encouraged) condom use of the circumcised group and not the circumcision itself.
Conversely this implies that because the uncircumcised men were not warned about condom use they were more likely to have unprotected sex and be exposed to HIV.
This would be quite an infamous move on the part of the researchers if it was true but these allegations are completely baseless for not one but two reasons.
Firstly every study is reviewed before research can begin. Study proposals are ‘combed’ by ethics committees to ensure they do not jeopardize their participants mentally, emotionally or physically. The study in question;
“…was reviewed and approved by the University of Witwatersrand Human Research Ethics Committee…the trial was also approved by the Scientific Commission of the French National Agency for AIDS Research…”
If the committees had any concerns about the safety or well being of participants the study would have been axed before it had even begun.
Secondly a bit of ‘homework’ on the part of this journalist would have revealed that circumcised and uncircumcised participants in the study were required to attend multiple safe sex counseling sessions;
“The counseling session (15–20 min) was delivered by a certified counselor and focused on information about STIs in general and HIV in particular and on how to prevent the risk of infection…Condoms were provided in the waiting room of the investigation centre and were also provided by the counselor.”
This quote taken from the research report proves that the allegation that condom use was encouraged for one group and not for the other is totally untrue.
Media practitioners writing about HIV-related topics should be extremely careful when making bold statements such as those made above.
Had this journalist done his homework and read the bona fide research report, he would have found that there was very little basis for such an aggressive and critical article.
Instead the study makes sensationalist claims about the cruelty and abuse which misrepresent the study in question.
There is no doubt that circumcision is controversial but making comments based on research which the journalist has not made themselves privy to is not the best way to mount a critique.
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